The New York Times

April 15, 2003

Labor Lacks United Front in the Battle to Save Jobs


With Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordering layoffs for 5,401 city workers, New York City's municipal unions are facing their biggest squeeze in three decades and are in unusual disarray about how to deal with it.

The unions representing more than 300,000 municipal workers are feuding over whether to offer more than minimal contract concessions to the city. Some labor leaders say they would much prefer layoffs to compromises that would hit union members' wallets.

Municipal labor's efforts to formulate a united response to the fiscal crisis have been further undercut by some union leaders who want to go their own way, some who do not trust one another, and some who are disengaged.

Fueling the disarray, some city workers, most notably the police and firefighters, appear largely insulated from any threat of layoffs, making them less willing than other unions to agree to money-saving concessions that would minimize layoffs.

"The unions have been pretty sloppy," said Josh Freeman, a Queens College professor and the author of a history of the city's labor movement. "They haven't had a well-coordinated response. I think there has been a tacit decision by many unions that they are unwilling to accept significant concessions for current workers to forestall layoffs."

With the unions unable or unwilling to agree to significant concessions, Mr. Bloomberg has ordered 5,401 city workers laid off and warned that as many as 15,000 may have to go if bigger budget cuts are needed. That has put the unions on the defensive.

About all that the unions agree on is that they want the State Legislature to approve a new commuter tax. Many leaders in Albany have ruled out such a measure.

In decades past when mayors angered municipal unions, union leaders often provoked angry confrontations. But labor has responded to Mr. Bloomberg's layoffs with little outrage and with nothing to put pressure on the mayor. As their main response, labor leaders announced that they would travel to Albany to lobby yesterday for the commuter tax to help close the city's budget gap of more than $3 billion.

"I think his announcement and the way it has played out have been insensitive to the people that work for him," said Lillian Roberts, executive director of District Council 37, the giant municipal union representing 125,000 workers.

District Council 37's principal response to the layoffs has been to plan a street rally on April 29 to protest concessions and layoffs and to urge the mayor, as it has often before, to stop giving city work to private contractors. That union, badly weakened by a series of scandals in the 1990's, has also begun running broadcast spots protesting the layoffs.

For several months Mr. Bloomberg warned that unless the municipal unions agreed to $600 million in money-saving measures by early April, he would be forced to lay off workers. The big question for many city officials and fiscal experts is why the unions were not more aggressive in negotiating the $600 million in savings.

"I don't think the unions have stepped up to the plate," said Diana Fortuna, president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed watchdog group. "It almost seems that for a lot of them, they'd prefer layoffs."

Several unions, most notably the police detectives, the police captains and Communications Workers Local 1180, representing city middle managers, have said openly that they would oppose any substantial concessions, even if that meant layoffs.

Leaders of those unions argue that laid-off workers are often rehired a year or two later, but it often takes decades to regain benefits that were relinquished during a fiscal crisis. Some union leaders acknowledge privately that their re-election chances are hurt far more by concessions that hurt every union member than by a modest number of layoffs.

Several city officials said this resistance to granting concessions explained why the savings package proposed by the unions contained so little that was meaningful.

Labor's ability to deal with the current crisis has been hurt, some union leaders acknowledge, because it lacks a group of respected negotiators like those during the 1970's crisis when the city teetered near bankruptcy and laid off tens of thousands of workers.

Back then, municipal labor had three giants: Victor Gotbaum of District Council 37, Albert Shanker of the teachers' union, and Barry Feinstein of Teamsters Local 237. The three, all cantankerous and loud-mouthed, almost spoke to Mayor Abraham D. Beame as equals. The mayor hesitated to take actions that crossed them, and the news media paid attention to their every word.

Now there is just one prominent municipal labor leader, Randi Weingarten, chairwoman of the Municipal Labor Committee and president of the teachers' union. She cannot muscle the city's labor movement into agreeing on strategy or concessions the way the 1970's threesome could. Nor does she command City Hall's respect the way they did.

"You have to acknowledge that right now Randi is the heavy," Mr. Gotbaum said. "I think she's been handling it as well as she possibly can."

Many factors are making Ms. Weingarten's job harder. Several unions have new presidents who are still learning their way, and some, like the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, have an election soon, making its leaders especially resistant to concessions.

"I don't think the city should be at all looking at labor for savings," said Patrick Lynch, the P.B.A.'s president. "The city should not always look to labor to fix their mismanagement problems."

Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, is insisting on negotiating separately from other unions, hoping that his early endorsements of the election campaigns of Mr. Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki will earn his union special protection.

"Every union thinks about its members' needs first before they think about the whole," Ms. Weingarten acknowledged. "As a result a lot of people are in different places."

Some labor leaders say Ms. Weingarten is caught in the middle, trying to reach a consensus between unions that vigorously oppose any costly concessions and unions like District Council 37 that, because they are vulnerable to layoffs, are open to money-saving compromises.

Ms. Weingarten insisted that the unions were serious about reaching an agreement to save $600 million and blamed Mr. Bloomberg for the failure to reach an agreement.

At first, she said, he confused the unions by saying they had to negotiate $600 million in savings by April 15, and then he changed that to April 1. She said the mayor undermined labor's will to agree to cuts by saying on a radio show on March 14 that there would be layoffs even if the unions reached a $600 million deal.

She complained that once the unions put forward a proposal to save $600 million, Mr. Bloomberg ridiculed it, declined to use it as a basis for negotiations and soon ordered layoffs.

"We have not had the give-and-take across the table required to get a compromise," she said. "Michael Bloomberg is not schooled in the art of public-sector negotiation. The unions came up with a savings plan that was remarkably similar to what we did with Rudy Giuliani in the mid-90's and what we did with Mayor Bloomberg last year to save $250 million. Why was it O.K. last year to come up with these kinds of ways to save money and now it's derided?"

Ms. Weingarten said she has come to doubt that Mr. Bloomberg ever wanted an agreement on $600 million in savings, suggesting that he wanted to lay off people all along to show Albany how tough the city's budget situation was.

Union leaders and city officials said labor's proposed $600 million package called for stretching out $300 million in city payments to union pension funds, for $200 million in savings through early retirement incentives, and for $100 million in savings by revamping health insurance.

Mr. Bloomberg said the pension proposal would have provided scant savings because it would force the city to pay 8 percent interest on the delayed $300 million in payments when it is often possible to borrow now at 1.5 percent interest.

James F. Hanley, the city's labor commissioner, said the first $500 million in the city's annual sales tax collections goes to paying off interest from the stretch-out of pension payment during the 1975 fiscal crisis.

Mr. Hanley criticized the early-retirement proposal, which would supposedly save $200 million. "It's not particularly wise," he said. "It doesn't cost a lot in the first year, but in the second year it ends up costing money in terms of increased pension payment and the third year even more, and so on. Plus you lose your most seasoned teachers when we need experienced teachers."

Mr. Hanley said the only union proposal worth considering was the $100 million in health savings, but he said it lacked details.

Saying that the city's unions are not sending out a clear message on how to deal with the budget crisis, Mr. Feinstein, the former Teamsters leader, said, "There is not a clear determination that the parties are going to work together to come up with a solution to the current crisis."